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Focus On: Edinburgh International Games Festival '04

The world, it seems, has gone game conference crazy. September will bring with it GDCE, EDF, EGN, AGC, WGC, and god knows how many other unwieldy acronyms as the pundits of the videogame industry aim to impart their knowledge, wow you with their Powerpoint abilities and, more than likely, try and sell you something in the process. While some of them have unique angles that make them worthy of a raised eyebrow - the hardcore technical focus of the EDF conference in London at the start of September is particularly noteworthy, while the Women's Game Conference in Austin later in the month is also of interest - it's easy to get a bit jaded about the whole conference concept under such a deluge of events.

There is, however, one conference happening in the coming months which stands apart from the rest in every way. It's a two-day conference event with a surprisingly diverse range of topics and a genuinely impressive line-up of speakers and panellists, but most notably, it's a conference which sets out with a uniquely un-commercial approach - one which treats videogames as culture and aims to bring together the industry's brightest to exchange ideas without the constraints of more business or technically focused events.

Sitting at the heart of the Edinburgh International Games Festival, which comprises a selection of public and industry-focused events including a hands-on games exhibition in Edinburgh's Royal museum and a four-day programme of public Game Screenings where creators present their latest titles, the EIGF '04 Conference promises to be one of the most interesting events in the industry's calendar for the year, as videogames take their place among the other stalwarts of the Edinburgh Festival for a second time.

Northern Exposure

"It's deliberately diverse - willful, even," EIGF chairman Greg Ingham says of the conference programme, which includes ten incredibly varied sessions and lectures. From a lecture on the industry's "world view" by ESA president Doug Lowenstein, through a panel presented by Seamus Blackley on the relevance of the Hollywood creative model to game development, to talks on presenting profound emotions in virtual actors (Revolution's Charles Cecil presides) and virtual cash in massively multiplayer titles (chaired by California State University's associate professor of economics, Edward Castronova), EIGF's programme cuts a swathe through a host of interesting and cutting edge topics.

"The context is that we as an industry are showcasing the best of our talents and thinking, alongside other more mainstream entertainment industries," Ingham explains. "It's vital that we cover the bases. And this isn't intended to be a sectarian trade event: it's about the creative and cultural development of games. We all want to stand up to be counted for the games industry, to continue pushing hard to gain mainstream recognition, to help influence."

Of course, much of the thinking which influences EIGF's agenda comes from its place at the heart of the Edinburgh Festival - which has long been seen as a hugely important, and slightly subversive, event in the calendar of other creative industries such as television and film.

"The Edinburgh Festival is an annual landmark event, a gathering of the tribes for TV, film, theatre and the performing arts," Ingham says. "And via the Edinburgh International Games Festival, launched last year, the games industry is staking its claim for cultural quality and relevance alongside them. It's a compelling opportunity to present not so much the familiar technological or financial perspectives on our industry, but, uniquely, the cultural and creative development of this thing called games."

Culture Vultures

If there was any doubt in our minds about the credentials of the EIGF event as a cultural rather than a commercial event, they are dispelled as Ingham explains his vision for the conference programme - using terms which it's hard to ever see falling from the mouth of an organiser at any traditional games industry conference.

"The conference programme itself is a canvas for the thought-leaders of our industry to paint their pictures of how their world looks," he explains. "We need to dream our futures, dream our place in the sun alongside the truly mainstream ââ'¬â and create a path for future development."

"Authentic, live, raw - you get to see and talk to key players from the games industry as they're figuring out ways of creating the new worlds and narratives, new modes of interactive entertainment. They're puzzling, too, over the reference-points for an industry yomping through its adolescence to a creative adulthood, where games are taking their place alongside other entertainment media, particularly film and music. And they're grappling with gamesland's shift from the Industrial Age of techspecs into an immersive, emotion-inducing entertainment world..."

It's this kind of thinking - very much in line with the cultural approach of the Edinburgh Festival as a whole - which lies at the heart of EIGF's claim to being unique among the industry's conference programmes. With a host of conferences taking place in London only weeks after the Edinburgh event, that level of distinction is important - but Ingham has complete confidence in the ability of EIGF to set itself apart from other events.

"At the heart is the cultural positioning of EIGF," he explains. "We're consciously being part of the overall Edinburgh Festival, and that automatically confers a different resonance on the event. And there's a very strong group of people with clear views on the organizing committee of EIGF, and the tireless Lisa Fox is driving the event very capably."

On a more practical note, he outlines how sessions at EIGF will differ from those at more traditional events in a way which many delegates will no doubt appreciate. "Many of us have witnessed industry orations which are theoretically non-partisan but in which the speaker spends virtually all of the time banging on about his/her company. EIGF just isn't like that - and never could be... It offers broader and deeper thinking about the trends in this industry."

"And," he adds, "in case that all sounds a tad po-faced, it should also be a really enjoyable time. It's an industry event: we can't be doing with being too serious...!"

Head to the Highlands

Although only in its second year, EIGF has attracted an impressive line-up of speakers and panellists - one which would be envied by many far more established and larger events. From the aforementioned Messrs Blackley, Lowenstein, Cecil and Castronova, to EA's Neil Young, Eidos' Ian Livingstone, Microsoft's Michel Cassius, Kuju's Ian Baverstock and a host of other British and international industry luminaries, Edinburgh's northern latitudes and the new kid on the block nature of the Games Festival appear to have posed no barriers to securing key people to speak at the conference.

"I think it comes back to the raison d'etre of the event," Ingham muses. "There's a virtuous circle at work: smart people with interesting things to say will want a platform for those views which isn't so narrowly or commercially defined as other events. The more thought leaders contribute, and the higher the event's profile in the industry and the more commentators like profile it, then the more others will also want the chance to attend and express their opinions - thus making next year's yet more exciting. It's fundamentally similar to what has happened with the Edinburgh Television Festival. Similar, but the games industry has been faster to seize the opportunity, of course!"

As for the numbers who are expected to turn out to attend the conference sessions; despite being pleasantly surprised by the numbers last year, Ingham isn't being drawn on any predictions for this year's figures. "Last year we were somewhat in the dark as to how much interest there would be and we had over 250 delegates at the one-day conference," he says. "This year, we have a much higher profile but it is a two-day conference which obviously involves more time away from the office. I'm not going to make any predictions as those who do are invariably wrong, however, I am confident in the team, the programme and the levels of genuine enthusiam and passion that this Festival has aroused in everyone I speak to."

And with such a wide range of topics under discussion, are there any particular sessions which Ingham is looking forward to? "Ooh, I always used to enjoy asking potentially divisive questions like that!" he explains in response. "In truth, there are a number of compelling-sounding sessions - Videogames are the new rock 'n' roll; Hollywood model; Virtual cash & Virtual actor; Pitch Idol. Then there is the terrific panel assembled for the Industry View discussion, the daftness of the spoof games show, Never Mind the Console Box and, amidst a world of console-thinking, the pertinence of The People's Platform is PC."

"There's a ton of good things," he concludes. "I'm really looking forward to it, and hope many of the readers of this will commit the time to be there."

Interested in heading along to Edinburgh for this unique glimpse at the industry's future (and perhaps a once in a lifetime sampler of deep fried confectionary products)? You can find out more details at the [Edinburgh International Games Festival Website].

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.